Trash Force picks up after campus

What started as an extra credit opportunity grew into a club who has fun keeping Carolina clean.

Students walking along brick pathways on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill holding trasha pickers and trash bags.
“We just went out and picked up trash, and we were, like, ‘Oh, that was fun. We were just messing around while we were doing it,” said Trash Force co-founder Andrew Mattson. (second row, second from left). (Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

As the group of students equipped with trash pickers made their way past Cobb Hall and rounded the nearby tennis courts, they heard a shout of support.

“Woohoo! Trash Force,” yelled a tennis player.

What is Trash Force? Why do they have fanfare?

Trash Force is a group of Carolina students who use their own time to beautify the campus through trash pickups, usually held once or twice a month and typically attracting 30 to 40 students.

In doing so, they make sure to have fun, socialize and embrace a relaxed atmosphere that’s welcoming to anyone who wants to join — all while cleaning up the place they call home.

The club started informally during the spring 2022 semester as a creative way for Andrew Mattson and his two fellow co-founders to get a little extra help in a challenging physics class.

“The professor was, like, ‘You can get extra credit on your test if you do some sort of volunteering,’” said Mattson, now a senior. “It was a really hard class.”

Mattson and his friends thought it would be easier and more enjoyable to create a group of their own and volunteer in a way that wouldn’t require them to leave campus.

Thus began the Trash Force, complete with the snarky nickname and club shirts with a distinctive logo — both inspired by the U.S. Space Force.

“We just went out and picked up trash, and we were, like, ‘Oh, that was fun. We were just messing around while we were doing it,” said Mattson.

Two students, one holding a trash bag and the other placing a plastic lid inside of it.

Finn Rehal (left) and Stephen Chesser (right) participate in Trash Force’s early April pickup. (Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Messing around, sure. But the Force has been living up to its name. After an April event, the group has now picked up over 540 pounds of waste in two years, approaching its goal of 600 pounds by the end of the school year.

Since beginning, the group has been in regular communication with UNC Facilities Services to coordinate and make sure everyone’s efforts are worthwhile.

“We don’t want to step on any toes,” Mattson said.

As a result, Trash Force tries to cover areas not as commonly frequented by Facilities Services like wooded areas and alleys. The group also makes sure to hit the areas surrounding Kenan Stadium and the Dean E. Smith Center during football and basketball season, respectively.

Two years in, club regular Meredith Pritchard is amazed at how the group evolved from class project to a full-fledged club that embraces cross-campus collaboration.

“It was just, like, five or six of us at the start,” said Pritchard, who manages Trash Force’s social media (including this comical, melodramatic TikTok). “It’s nice that there are more people, and getting to meet with more organizations helps.”

A student inspecting items inside a recycling bin

At its early April pickup, Trash Force looked through campus recycling bins to ensure that nonrecyclable items are not present. (Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Trash Force varied its routine in April by taking part in the student-led Green Games, a competition sponsored by Carolina’s Office of Waste Reduction and Recycling. Contestants removed contaminants from compost and recycling bins at residence halls across campus.

“I’m probably going to come out to more events now,” said Green Games intern Carly Barello.

Trash Force hosts its “Heel the Earth” event on April 22, 5:30-7 p.m. The event includes a screening of National Geographic’s “Plastic 101” and is followed by a trash pickup.

The recognition that Trash Force receives around campus shows how the group’s reputation has grown since its start.

“Other students would give us looks like, ‘Why do you have to do community service?’” Mattson said with a smile. “Recently, there have been a lot more people going, ‘Oh, wait — is this Trash Force?’ And it’s people we don’t know. They just know about the club.”